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DeVos Ponders Letting Schools Buy Guns Under ESSA in Twist on Federal Law


Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos might let school districts use a relatively new federal program as a funding source for buying guns.

DeVos is mulling the idea that school districts could purchase firearms and firearms training through a grant program in the Every Student Succeeds Act, the main federal education law.  If she were to allow such a move, it would be her most controversial step yet to address school safety in the wake of two mass shootings in high schools this year. Such a move would also allow her to let local districts take the lead, in keeping with her support for a limited federal role in schools.

Education advocates are already pushing back hard on the idea. And arming teachers and other school staff is not broadly supported among teachers and other K-12 eduacation leaders.

News that DeVos was contemplating this approach was first reported in the New York Times

The money for firearms purchases would come from the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, which receive $1.1 billion under ESSA. The grants, which are controlled at the district level, are intended to support a well-rounded education and student health and wellness, but does not contain an explicit prohibition on using the money to purchase firearms.

Liz Hill, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education, said in a statement Thursday that, "The NY Times piece is getting blown way out of proportion. The department is constantly considering and evaluating policy issues, particularly issues related to school safety. The secretary nor the department issues opinions on hypothetical scenarios."

A senior Trump administration official said that the question of using Title IV money for gun purchases was first raised in a letter from Texas officials who inquired whether the grants could be used in this way. (Under Texas law, school districts are allowed to arm school staff under certain conditions.) 

"Department officials have been researching the issue, like they do with every issue, in response to this Texas letter," the official said, noting that there have been discussions but no decisions yet from DeVos.

In its two budget proposals for fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019, the Trump administration sought to eliminate these Title IV grants. Instead, for fiscal 2018, Congress approved a $700 million increase for the program up to $1.1 billion. Lawmakers haven't agreed on a final spending figure for the grants for fiscal 2019, but neither the House nor Senate wants to eliminate it. Lawmakers created the Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants when they passed ESSA in 2015, and funding for it was first authorized for fiscal 2017.

Under Title IV Part A of ESSA, individual districts have discretion over how the money is spent, although a district that receives $30,000 is required to spend certain portions of the money on specific priorities.

Supporters of funding for Title IV grants quickly expressed opposition to the idea of using them for firearms purchases.

"It is way outside the scope of what Congress intended for this program," said Ally Bernstein, the executive director of the Title IV-A Coalition. "In our conversations with the department, we were never made aware that they were considering this."

The National Association of Secondary School Principals condemned the idea, as did Sasha Pudelski, the assistant director for policy and advocacy at AASA, the School Superintendents Association:

DeVos leads the Federal School Safety Commision that was formed after the Parkland murders, and which has heard arguments about the merits of having armed school staff protect students. The secretary has told Congress that her commission is not examining the role of guns in school violence. 

Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

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